Friday, May 29, 2020

Live on Cam: How Isa Mazzei & Daniel Goldhaber's Film Displays Postmodern Feminism

(Every month, I choose a horror film to shine a spotlight on and dig into. For the month of May, I selected the Netflix digital thriller Cam.)

In the 1983 cult horror film Videodrome, director and writer David Cronenberg chose to introduce his film's female lead, Nicki, as an image through a camera in a way that presents a double meaning: She is presented as an image through Cronenberg's camera to Videodrome's spectators and as an image projected through the technology at the center of the film's plot to Max, the film's male lead. The purpose of the decision made here is to demonstrate that Nicki is not a person, but rather an avatar. Her image has been commodified in order to both seduce the protagonist into the technology's grasp and to lure Cronenberg's intended audience further into the film. This is driven home when you contemplate that Cronenberg cast Deborah Harry, a musician whose image is well known to the point where I can (rightfully) refer to her as an icon, to play Nicki. When you put all of this together, it's clear that Cronenberg used postmodern outlets to establish that Nicki's role in Videodrome revolves around using her, to borrow a term coined by film theorist Laura Mulvey, "to-be-looked-at-ness" to appeal to both the character Max and to Cronenberg's intended audience.

Actual legend Deborah Harry as Nicki in Videodrome (1983)

So, what does Videodrome have to do with the movie Cam? Well, cut to 2018: Netflix releases Cam, a horror film written by Isa Mazzei and directed by Daniel Goldhaber. Cam introduces its protagonist, Alice, the same way Videodrome introduced Nicki: As an image shown through a camera. Initially, Alice seems to be presented in the exact same fashion as Nicki: A commodity presented to be consumed by both male characters within the film and to an assumed male audience to hook them into watching the film. The choice by Mazzei and Goldhaber to make Alice a sex worker, specifically a camgirl, reinforces certain expectations that Alice could be a direct spiritual descendant of Nicki. That is, until Alice is seemingly harassed repeatedly by a "visitor" on her website's chatroom whom demands with cash that Alice harm herself with a knife. Which leads Alice to slit her own throat, seemingly killing herself...until it's revealed that the "suicide" was staged by Alice and one of her regular customers, Tinker, in order for her to make money and ascend in popularity on her website. With this twist, the same postmodernist method that Cronenberg used to establish Nicki's role in Videodrome as a passive commodity is used by Mazzei and Goldhaber to establish Alice as Cam's active protagonist. The choices that Mazzei and Goldhaber make throughout the entirety of Cam combine postmodernism with feminism to birth an effective horror film that follows in Videodrome's footsteps while building its own identity lined with new new flesh.

The amazing Madeline Brewer as Alice in Cam (2018)

Performance Piece: Jennifer Tilly, "Seed of Chucky" (2004)

(Every month or so, I choose a different performance in a film to highlight and analyze what makes it work so well. This is the first:)

The Performer: Jennifer Tilly

The Performance: Playing "Jennifer Tilly" and "Tiffany Valentine" in Seed of Chucky

Why Her?

For the debut entry in my "Performance Piece" series, I wanted to write about an actor whose performance I believe is legitimately iconic. And what better performance to select than one from a film that I personally love, but has otherwise been dubbed by some people as, and I quote, "truly the shit stain of the [Chucky] franchise"? While I won't deny that Seed of Chucky is...baroque, to put it lightly, there is at least one reason to give it at least one watch: The performance courtesy of the film's female lead, Jennifer Tilly.

Jennifer Tilly as Tiffany & herself in Seed of Chucky (2004)

New Flesh: Swallow (2020)

[Every month, I choose a new or lesser known horror film to highlight and recommend. The is the first:]

The Film: Swallow (2020)

What Is It About?: Swallow follows Hunter Conrad (Haley Bennett), a newlywed who moves into a new home with her rich husband Richie (Austin Stowell). It seems as if Hunter has the perfect life, complete with the discovery that she is pregnant with her and Richie's first child. However, Hunter begins to feel a loss of control due to Richie's subtle insistence on her taking on the role of obedient housewife and her own troubled past beginning to bubble to the surface. To deal with her inner turmoil, Hunter begins to swallow inedible objects including thumbtacks, marbles and various other random objects. As her disordered eating and her husband and his parents's (Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche) attempts at maintaining control worsens, it becomes clear to Hunter that something must be done in order for her conflict to reach a resolution.

Why Do I Recommend it?

Y'all, I initially wanted to watch this because I knew of Haley Bennett from her on-screen debut in the Drew Barrymore rom com Music & Lyrics in which Bennett basically plays Shakira. After her performances in that and a teen horror flick called The Haunting of Molly Hartley, I lost track of Bennett until I stumbled upon news of this movie. An actress I hadn't seen in a film in years doing a horror movie, let alone one with the concept about a housewife who begins eating random objects? Yeah, I was sold right away. And, low and behold, Swallow lived up to my anticipation when I finally watched it this spring.

There are a few reasons why Swallow is a must-see: I'll start with the cast. As I just mentioned, a large part of why I wanted to see this was because of this being a horror vehicle for Haley Bennett. Well, Bennett is a revelation in this role, playing a character that feels like a spiritual successor to Mad Men's Betty Draper. Bennett gets to show off her range, from having several stretches of the film dedicated to her trying to fulfill her husband's smothering expectations of her even while he's absent, to reacting petulantly to her therapist when the doctor tries to prod information out of her, to metaphorically and literally reflecting on the choices she's made and the choices she has yet to make. The supporting cast of Swallow are also up to par, including Austin Stowell as Hunter's husband Richie. As Richie, Stowell gives the character the insidiousness it requires and gradually dials up the true nature of the role until everything is laid on the table with the final act. You also have wonderful character actors like Elizabeth Marvel as Hunter's overbearing mother-in-law and Denis O'Hare in the minor yet pivotal role of William, a man with ties to Hunter's past.

Haley Bennett has the range as Hunter in Swallow (2020)

On top of the cast, you have the wonderful direction and screenplay from Carlo Mirabella-Davis. This is Mirabella-Davis's debut narrative feature, with his prior credits being a short film from 2008 called Knife Point and a documentary he co-directed with two other filmmakers called The Swell Season. However, you wouldn't know this is Mirabella-Davis's debut feature as with this one feature, he displays an immense talent. Mirabella-Davis's screenplay is a wonderful, character-driven piece that is carried by its three-dimensional protagonist. Something that should come as no surprise when you read interviews with Mirabella-Davis: The filmmaker has discussed in interviews how the film and the Hunter character were inspired by his own grandmother, whom lived with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and was ultimately institutionalized and lobotomized without her consent. With the personal origin of the film in mind, it is no wonder Mirabella-Davis would take extra care with his roles in the construction of the film.

If talking about the cast and the writer/director didn't sell you on seeing Swallow, hopefully the fact that, above everything else, that this film is simply gorgeous to look at will. Swallow was shot by cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi, who carries over her color-driven camera work from her previous film Cam to great effect. Arizmendi works with Mirabella-Davis to create a visually stunning film that is fueled by a color palette that mixes primary colors with natural colors. Yellow, blue and red are everywhere in this movie, along with a lot of natural greens, browns and whites. It creates a really nice mix that allows the film to stand out visually when it wants to: One scene that features Hunter in a passive aggressive conversation with her mother-in-law has Hunter bathed in red drapes and the mother-in-law bathed in blue drapes. Not only is this scene a delight to look at, but it establishes red as the color that appears when Hunter tries to make her own decisions and blue as the color of the Conrad family, a color that smothers Hunter whenever her autonomy is thwarted. On the flip side, there are also several scenes that emphasize the natural colors, such as multiple scenes where Hunter is dressed in brown and tan clothes that blend her in with her environment. The purpose of this is to emphasize the lack of visual thrills, as it shows that Hunter feels powerless to the point where she feels less than human and, therefore, must swallow to bring herself back to life.

An example of the beauty of Swallow (2020)

Available on: Video on Demand, iTunes and Amazon.

Hello, Gore Whore

So, let me introduce myself:

My name is Matthew, and despite being told by a good friend that nobody blogs anymore, I'm dipping my toes into blogging about something I hold dear to my heart: Horror.

Saying I'm a "lifelong horror fan" sounds suspect as hell, but there's some truth to it: My gateway was my parents letting me watch the old "Treehouse of Horror" episodes of The Simpsons when I was way too young to be watching those. Like, I'm pretty sure seeing the titular family get turned inside out at the ripe old age of six warped me. Combine that with seeing the first two A Nightmare on Elm Street movies a couple years later and an affinity for the Goosebumps book series, and the genre had sunk its claws into me.

So now, over twenty years after my first exposure to horror, and after many years of watching horror movies and television, I decided to make a proper outlet to share my thoughts about the genre. If anybody's reading this (or still reading this, if they're reading it and haven't gotten bored yet), you can expect a lot of opinions, recommendations, essays and other writings from me on here. My goal is to try to make one or two posts a week, but my blogging habits, like many things, is subject to change.

So, now that I have introduced myself, the blog can actually begin. Enjoy the show!